Life in UC Berkeley Part II: Joshua Price from Gael Robotics to Robotics@Berkeley
The latest entry in the Life in College Series is part II of the article contributed by Dublin High School Class of 2014 graduate and University of California – Berkeley sophomore Joshua Price. (Part I is available here).
There are so many student groups at Berkeley. Service groups, music groups, social groups, art groups, competition teams, sports teams, dance teams, honors societies… the list of active groups is over 1,000 groups long. Some undergraduates work in research labs, others take work-study jobs on campus, and some even lead businesses of their own. For most students, college is much more than classes — many find their smaller communities and best friends in student groups.
Extracurriculars (or how I founded Robotics@Berkeley)
While I explored a lot of different extracurricular groups in my first year at Berkeley, my focus was on undergraduate research. Through a lot of searching and the advice and assistance of an undergraduate advisor, I got a position working with PhD students in a lab that works on the cutting edge of autonomous vehicle controls (self-driving cars!).
The learning curve was insane. I spent many late nights and weekends reading papers on topics such as convex optimization and model predictive control, but the experience was incredibly rewarding. I’m pretty sure I didn’t actually contribute that much for the first few months because I had so much to learn, but the graduate students and professor were very supportive throughout. We would regularly drive up to Richmond to test changes on their full-size autonomous vehicles. My first time riding in an autonomous vehicle was thrilling — we were testing new changes in the software, and the car swerved off its path a couple of times because not all the values were tuned correctly yet! Fortunately the car is wired such that if you grab onto the steering wheel it will return to manual control, so it’s safe as long as the person sitting in the driver’s seat is paying attention.
A few months into my experience in the lab I could tell that I was actually contributing to the progress of their research: the PhD students I worked with would often text and email me when I was away from the lab, asking me for clarification about the things I set up for them. My advising professor offered to pay me over summer if I continued to work with them, and I happily accepted. I spent long days working alongside them, both setting up new hardware and developing improved software for them to use in their research. For much of the summer I had my own desk in the lab, getting there early in the morning and staying late into the night. If someone had told me that I would be a paid researcher in an advanced autonomous research lab a year before, I never would have believed them. It was really an amazing opportunity.
By the end of summer, I was itching to start something of my own. I noticed what seemed like a gaping hole in Berkeley’s engineering community: there was no undergraduate robotics club. There are a couple of clubs that do robotics-related educational programs and competitions, and some undergrads work in research labs like I did, but there was no group like there was at DHS where you can go, find people who are also interested in robotics, and get support for cool project ideas. So I got the advice of other club leaders, gathered together some interested friends, and started what is now called Robotics@Berkeley.
R@B has been a rollercoaster. In one semester, we started four projects (one of them being a combat robot team), put on five workshops that we developed ourselves, organized numerous social events, and made many connections with companies and other groups around campus. I’ve learned so much about leadership, teamwork, networking, fundraising, marketing… most of my work in the club has been administrative thus far, but I’m very glad to have the experience that I’ve gained from it.
Perhaps my favorite part of leading Robotics@Berkeley has been the opportunities I’ve had to meet and exchange ideas with other leaders at Berkeley, both faculty and students. Last semester, we interviewed multiple leading researchers such as Ken Goldberg and Stuart Russell about their visions for the future of robotics and artificial intelligence for a video series we’re creating. Sitting down for half an hour with leaders in robotics and AI has really influenced my perception of the future of technology. Advancements in science and technology are so much more than complex technical problems… they all have social, political, and economic influences that can be hugely important in the bigger picture of the human experience.
This realization of the enormity of the non-technical impacts of technical advancements led me to form another group this semester, now called The Alpha Generation. We’re a group of undergraduate and PhD students that explore specific issues that will impact the lives of people born between 2010 and 2025 by interviewing researchers and policymakers and publishing our major findings. Our current topic of focus is the future of highly infectious disease, inspired by the outbreak of the Zika virus in Latin America. We’re interviewing leading researchers in public health, epidemiology, sociology, statistics, and other fields to understand the many issues that will affect infectious disease in the future. I’ve already learned an immense amount about the deep interconnectedness of problems like overpopulation, climate change, disease, income inequality, and violence, and I’m incredibly excited to learn about future topics we will be exploring such as increased use of AI in the workforce and gene editing using CRISPR-Cas9.
I’m amazed by how open eminent researchers are to sitting down for twenty minutes and talking with students like me about their research and views of the future. A lot of my fellow students act like there’s a wall between undergraduates and the research community, but that is really not the case if you simply make an effort to engage.
Colleges and their Impact on Society
I’m taking a sociology class this semester called Technology and Society, in which I’ve learned a lot about the role technology plays in this complex world of government, conflict, profits, and science. What has surprised me the most in the course is the absolutely fundamental role that universities have played in shaping our world in the past century. A Berkeley example: the nuclear research and leadership of two Cal professors — Ernest Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the Manhattan Project and “father of the atomic bomb” — significantly affected the state of society in the past seventy years because their work largely decided the timing and nature of the Atomic Age.
The role of universities in leading research has not diminished since the time of Lawrence and Oppenheimer. What has changed are the current research areas that will likely determine the next era in human history: rather than atomic bombs, it is now technologies like artificial intelligence and genome editing that will redefine the way we live. Lawrence and Oppenheimer were shaping their futures in the 1930s and 1940s; people like Professors Doudna and Goldberg are shaping the futures that the people of today will live.
I believe the most beautiful thing about joining a university is this: you enter the working ecosystem of an institution paving the path for humanity. You get the opportunity to learn from and work with the Lawrences and Oppenheimers of our time. You can visit them in office hours, you can conduct research with them, you can interview them and ask them about their visions for the future.
Colleges also significantly influence society in ways other than academic research. College campuses have been a center of social movements like Black Lives Matter for decades. By attending a socially active college like Berkeley, you’ll not only be affected by these movements, as I was in my first semester, but you’ll also get the opportunity to contribute to social change in potentially significant ways.
Even further, and perhaps most obviously, colleges define the future because they train the next generation of intellectuals and leaders. Today’s college students will someday become scientists, engineers, CEOs, senators, and presidents. Each student’s journey through the college ecosystem will affect them for the rest of their lives. After all, education exists to broaden understanding; to equip individuals with what they need to contribute to the world in their own way.
I feel that the education I’m receiving at Berkeley is fundamentally different from all of my years before college. Whereas in high school education meant learning about the world from a distance, in college education means becoming part of that world. Education no longer feels like adding new facts to my head: it’s now building a new understanding of why I am the way I am, why my world is the way it is. And most amazingly, being intertwined with my college community enables me to build an understanding of what the future could be, why it could be that way, and what role I can play to get it there.
Advice to High School Students
I remember the general advice I received in high school when it came to preparing for college was very conflicting: people said “push yourself,” “do a lot of extracurriculars,” and “take as many AP classes as possible” while at the same time telling me to “get enough sleep,” “stay sane,” and “have fun.”
It’s tough to find the right balance. I personally pushed myself very hard in high school, especially in my junior and senior year, and I don’t regret that now. I’ve experienced the most growth when working at my limits, and I think that has played a major role in bringing me the opportunities I now have.
I do have one piece of advice related to finding a balance that I think applies in high school, college, and probably beyond: building and sustaining a social safety net. Do you have people who care about you to fall back on if you heavily invest in something and don’t succeed? For most people this would involve family and close friends, but it really depends on who you are and how you value your relationships with others.
Prioritize the people in your safety net. This doesn’t mean you need to spend a lot of time with them, it just means to make sure you have their mutual trust and care. I know that so long as I have those people I consider to be my safety net, I’ll be able to “stay sane.”
Another piece of advice I have for high school students is one that I received from my dad years ago: realize that you’re young and understand the advantages you have during youth. Don’t be so afraid of risks when you’re young because people don’t have high expectations and your parents and community will be there to fall back on. Who cares if your business flops, you’re seventeen and still have lots to learn. If your business is a success, on the other hand, you’ll be hailed as a prodigy. The cards are really stacked in your favor in that sense. Use that to your advantage.
My third piece of advice is one that I have Dublin High to thank for. Over the course of high school, I worked with several teachers and other adults who have significantly helped me become the person I am today. Even though I’m over a year out of high school, I communicate frequently with multiple of them and continue to seek their advice at every chance I get.
I think the value of mentorship is vastly underestimated by most high school students. Support in difficult endeavors is invaluable, and the teachers and other adults who work at high schools like DHS are often incredibly supportive people. They’ve experienced much more life than you have, and in some cases they have even received college degrees in the area you want to study. Find mentors who you respect and who have already gone down a path you want to follow. This is essential especially when starting new things without much personal experience.
Lastly, when you pack up your bags and finally head to college, recognize and appreciate how big of a deal your new home is. No matter which college you choose, you’re joining a community that plays an important role in the world. Engage in every way you can: don’t hesitate to reach out to people you admire, pursue new ideas at every turn, and maybe even start something of your own. Attending college is an unparalleled opportunity to see human life in an entirely new way and learn about both yourself and the role you want to play in this world. I’ve been able to do this at Berkeley, and as you can probably tell, I’ve had the time of my life.